THERE WAS A SMELL OF affluence and hokum. I felt like I’d wandered into an episode of Lovejoy.
It was a few weeks ago, and I was in Norfolk, on my way to one of the country’s least-used railway stations. I’d stopped along the way in the small village of Reedham, where I thought I’d enjoy a pleasant stroll along the river.
But there was something about the place that left me unsettled. Perhaps I should have read the signs. Literally.
A few weeks ago I spent a couple of days travelling around The County Formerly Known as the Garden of England. I was using a Kent Rover, which allows unlimited travel for three consecutive days.
There were no attractions I especially wanted to see, and no lines upon which I particularly wanted to ride. I merely wished to try and travel along as many routes that were open to me, taking things as I found them.
To impose some sort of coherency upon this rather jumbled quest, I’ve reached for that most unoriginal of conceits, the A-Z. Feel free to call me a lazy Kent hunt.
A is for ARMS, COAT OF
Set high up on one of the walls inside Ramsgate station is a rather fine display of railway-inspired heraldry. I’m guessing it refers to the Southern Railway company that operated between the wars. Its presence is all the more welcome by virtue of being so unexpected, though the building as a whole is pretty impressive. I’ve rarely been inside a station that seemed so airy and weightless.
B is for “BRITISH RAIL TRAIN WITHOUT A TOILET, I’M ON YET ANOTHER”
Seated a short distance from me on the train to Ramsgate was someone who no doubt also used phrases such as “the gas board” and “the GPO”. He was talking into his mobile phone. Everyone could hear him. He had, it seemed, suffered repeated encounters with malfunctioning lavatories. I don’t know what he expected his many listeners to do about it. Offer him an empty water bottle?
C is for “CLIFF!, LOOK OUT”
The ideal place to see the white cliffs of Dover is most definitely not from within Dover itself, though you can kind of glimpse them if you walk far enough along the seafront. This isn’t a town that is best experienced from the inside looking out. Not least because…
D is for DOVER PRIORY
If you’re a fan of unwelcoming, inhospitable, ill-conceived, dank, lumpen and bonechillingly-unloved stations, Dover Priory is not the place for you. Because Dover Priory is in fact desperately unwelcoming, inhospitable, ill-conceived, dank, lumpen and bonechillingly-unloved, and the sort of place that actively strains every sinew of its wretched being to encourage you leave, move on, get out, get far away, never come back and forget you ever came. It is everything a railway station should not be, and has nothing to commend it. Well, almost nothing (see G).
E is for EAST, CANTERBURY
Poorly-signposted from Canterbury West, and vice versa. Not two stations you want to walk between in a hurry on a warm day, shoulder-to-elbow-to-breast-to-shoulder with several thousand tourists.
F is for FOLKESTONE WEST AND/OR CENTRAL
Either is fine for beginning the short ride along the coast to Dover, a seven-mile cliff-clinging, sea-skirting thrill described by Paul Theroux as “man’s best machine traversing the earth’s best feature – the train tracking in the narrow angle between vertical rock and horizontal water.”
G is for GULL, HIGH-SPEED
Pretty much the only thing to recommend Dover Priory station is the chance to see seagulls waddling around blithely on top of stationary non-high-speed trains.
H is for HIGH-SPEED TRAIN, PRETEND
Bits of the lines covered by the Kent Rover are also used by Southeastern’s high-speed services, and with some careful planning you can hop aboard and pretend you’re in the 21st century along with the rest of the industrialised, public transport-rich world, and not the mid-20th. One way to do this is to join a high-speed train that has come from St Pancras at Ashford and continue on to Dover, for much of which you run alongside the tracks used by Eurostar services. However this does mean you need to pay a visit to…
I is for INTERNATIONAL, ASHFORD
One of the most arid stations I have ever visited. Perhaps I was just there at the wrong time. Much of it was deserted. The only people in the huge international terminal were two check-in attendants. The bilingual signs, conceived out of the best cosmopolitan intentions, just looked desperately sad. The entire place felt unsure of its existence – a bit like the EU itself, I suppose*.
J is for J PEASMOLD GRUNTFUTTOCK
Somebody on the train from Ashford International to Dover Priory sounded just like this splendidly seedy character voiced by Kenneth Williams in Round the Horne. The similarity was rather charming, until the person stood up and revealed themselves to be a woman.
K is for KEEP YOUR FEET OFF THE SEATS
One day I will pluck up enough courage to actually say this out loud and not just inside my head.
L is for LICK OF PAINT, COULD DO WITH A
I know it’s not properly representative, but the view of a town from the window of a train ought to show something of the place at its best. Especially a resort town. But this was not the case as the likes of Whitstable, Herne Bay, Westgate-on-Sea and Margate sidled past. North Kent cannot muster many airs and graces for visitors arriving by rail.
M is for MINSTER
I didn’t plan on spending 45 minutes here, but the wait saved me a journey into Ramsgate and back out again. It also allowed me an opportunity to walk around this charming, tiny, historic village, properly known as Minster-in-Thanet, and which could stake a claim for being the quietest settlement in the county. I know my presence was being monitored from behind net curtains, but for once I didn’t care.
N is for NORTH DOWNS
A train from Swanley to Ashford via Maidenhead gave me the best view of the North Downs: a battery of beautiful, natural landscapes indecently and implausibly close to the rotting horror of Kent’s north coastline, and which – unlike Dover – can be equally appreciated up close and from afar.
O is for “OOOH, YOU’VE GOT A KENT ROVER…”
“…Not many people know about them,” cooed the ticket inspector before passing on down the carriage, implying the lack of awareness about this particular special offer was absolutely nothing to do with him.
P is for POSSIBLY THE WORST STATION IN THE COUNTY
See D, although Strood, which seemed to be in barely-managed decline, comes a close second.
Q is for QUICKLY, CROSS
Superfluous instructions at the level crossing at Minster (see M), just in case you were of a mind to dawdle, loiter or quite possibly sit down in the middle of the tracks.
R is for RABBITS
I saw hundreds of them in fields by the side of the railway tracks, most noticeably when “silflay” was taking place. They easily outnumbered the less cuddly though equally ubiquitous oast houses and vineyards.
S is for SWANLEY
The starting point for each day of my travels, and a somewhat underwhelming Gateway to the Former Garden of England.
T is for TILBURY DOCKS
Not in Kent but visible and accessible from the waterfront at Gravesend, which I visited in order to sample both the north-west and south-east (see C) points of the county. I know which I preferred.
U is for UNDERSTATEMENT
Kent is a county of extremes.
V is for VIEW OF THE JOURNEY, THE BEST
W is for WEST MALLING
An advertisement, at least superficially, for both the most picturesque and most monied dimensions of Kent, both of which I contrived to pass through without stopping.
X is for XENOPHOBIA
Another of Dover’s least appealing qualities. It oozes up from the cracked pavements and out through the peeling paintwork and smashed windows of the public houses and shelters that line the streets.
Y is for YALDING
A station I didn’t get to see, due to a signal failure causing the temporary suspension of services between Strood and Paddock Wood just when I was about to take a train along the line, which would have meant I’d travelled along every route permitted by the Kent Rover.
Z is for ZOUNDS
An exclamation suitable for verbal ejaculation upon realising your best-laid plans are to be thwarted by factors beyond your control, as evidenced above (see Y).
I WANTED TO TRAVEL ALONG the Settle-Carlisle line today.
It’s quite properly often referred to as one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of railway, and my desire to see it for myself was compounded by the fact that the weather, on this third day of North West rovering, was absolutely gorgeous.
I think it must have dropped close to freezing the night before, because when I stepped outside it was clear, it was sunny, and it was cold: the ideal combination (for me at any rate) for mixing public transport travelling with public transport sightseeing.
I ended up doing the line in the opposite direction, as it were, for reasons dictated by another of my over-ambitious ideas. Instead of merely going from Carnforth to Settle, up to Carlisle and back to Carnforth again, I reasoned why not use my ticket to attempt something grander. Something bolder. Something courageous (in the Yes Minister sense of the word). Something like this:
Actually, that route came about partly through expediency. The line between Long Preston and Carnforth was out of the action the week I was there, and replacement bus services had taken the place of trains.
I didn’t fancy that. I don’t travel well on buses. Not your everyday town or city services; no, I mean your long distance coach efforts. And besides, there’s a reason this blog is named after railways.
Anyway, I began by once more heading south to Lancaster and then north to Carlisle.
This journey itself was pretty exceptional – at least it was to me, not used to passing quite so close to brooding hills, untamed streams and hundreds of grazing cattle. Most of my fellow passengers couldn’t careless. But then I guess they would think the same belittling thoughts of me were they to catch me snoozing on the Underground instead of, like them, lapping up the novelty of being inside a subterranean train set.
I had loads of time to kill in Carlisle, so I walked for a while around what seemed to be a pleasant enough place, enhanced by this unexpected discovery:
That song was in my head for the rest of the morning.
When I finally boarded the train that was to take me along One Of Britain’s Most Beautiful Railways, I was faced with a crucial decision. On which side of the carriage should I sit? Where would I get the best views?
I then discovered that most of the train windows were filthy. Not from mud, mind, but with detergent that hadn’t been properly wiped off. Grrr.
I found a seat by a window that wasn’t too mucky. But then I overheard a conversation between a rather pompous man and two women, who may or may not have been his travelling companions.
“No, no,” he spluttered to them, “you don’t want to sit that side [the side I was on].
“You need to be this side. All the best views this side. Trust me. My wife doesn’t, but you can! Sit here and you’ll get the best views. Guarantee it. Go on – park yourselves there. Haw-haw-haw.”
Reader, I fell for this ludicrous performance.
I’m afraid to admit that I moved seats so I was the same side of the carriage as this red-faced haughty foghorn.
And of course, the whole thing was a mistake. The best views were all on the other side of the carriage. Not that everyone was paying attention. As we set off from Carlisle, I heard a woman say to her husband that she’d been “wanting to do this journey all my life.” It was 45 minutes before she even looked up from her bloody newspaper!
Meanwhile the pompous bugalugs and his two ladies were getting in a hopeless mess. “Brief Encounter was set in Holmfirth, wasn’t it?” one of the women asked the others, to general approval.
I wanted to lean through the seats and shout that they were wrong. Completely wrong. And that you, sir, yes, you the old man with the red face and misplaced confidence, were clearly wrong ABOUT EVERYTHING. Do you really remember Trevor Howard going down a hill in a tin bath, or Compo wiping a bit of grit out of Nora Batty’s eye?
But I said nothing. Instead I held my tongue, because I knew that I would not be travelling all the way to Settle and beyond in the company of this man, and that instead I would soon be getting off.
For I had decided to break my journey in two, and spend a couple of hours (for that was the time until the next train) exploring a particularly iconic location.
I was the only person to get off the train at Ribblehead station. As soon as it has passed down the line, there was complete silence. The only sound to be heard as I walked down to the viaduct were my own footsteps. Even the few other visitors lurking in the area didn’t seem to be making any noise. The stillness was pretty much absolute.
Occasionally, snatches of conversation flew past me on the wind. Then all would be silent once more. Apart from idiots making self-indulgent videos, everybody – and everything – acted as if in awe of their surroundings. Which was, of course, entirely proper and correct.
Feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, if rather cold and tired, I went back to the station to wait for the train to Leeds.
A few grizzled trainspotters were in attendance, along with – wonderfully – the station cat:
Inevitably, everything else that happened during the day was something of an anti-climax.
“Don’t get those much up here,” said the ticket inspector to me on checking my rover just before Skipton. Hmm – where else would I be using it other than “up here”?
I fell asleep shortly before Leeds, and on arrival, still in a semi-conscious state, I got on to the wrong train. I only realised my mistake 60 seconds before the doors closed, and had to make an undignified exit. I’m sure I heard someone chuckling. Maybe it was that crotchety old sod from before.
I had to wait an hour at Leeds before the train to Bradford and Halifax. I didn’t venture outside; I was still too tired and I know, or knew, Leeds pretty well.
The inside of the Leeds station is a grim place to dwell for any length of time. There is no place to escape the crowds and collect your thoughts. There is also no place that collects your litter. I wandered around with a banana skin in my hand for ten minutes before dropping it in a cleaner’s bucket. Well, what can you do?
All this faffing around meant it was starting to get dark by the time I left for Preston. The moon rose just after I’d been through Bradford:
It was pitch black by the time I passed through Hebden Bridge, going the opposite direction to the way I’d been two days earlier. I couldn’t see any of the likes of Accrington and Blackburn at all. Vast carpets of electric lights shimmered outside the carriage window.
I started to regret having had to wait so long in Leeds. I was annoyed at not being able to see anything whatsoever of these unfamiliar places. I felt cheated out of what should have been an intriguing last lap to the day.
To top it all, I found I was sitting close to a racist crone who, just before I got off at Preston, I overheard remarking to her companion: “Are those two Jews? I don’t like Jews.”
I ended up a little while later standing yet again on the platform of Lancaster station. I recorded my thoughts on a few of the people I’d encountered during the last few hours:
A day to remember.